A double-feature born from my time with the MAG public beta. First, a fiction to give the feel of the game and then a reflection about war games and what they can give us.
A Tale From the Frontline
12 minutes left.
Our squad leader is sounding pretty confident about the mission when he tells us through his headset: “We have more than enough time to do this.” We just took objective B from S.V.E.R., mere seconds after Alpha and Bravo took control of objective A. With that much time left and a boost in confidence, blowing up objective C will be a walk in the park.
3 minutes left.
I guess he was over-confident. S.V.E.R. may be under-equipped but they can hold a base quite well. Most of the squads are scattered across the map, trying to get their butts inside the hangar, but to no avail. Our squad is focusing on the right entrance, on the second floor. I try my best to heal back my boys but there is only so much a single medic can do. Unfortunately, those tangos seem to come in endless supply. It won’t be long before we are pushed back.
2 minute left.
In a burst of hopelessness, our squad leader screams in his headset: “Come on guys, we can do this!” Is it all it takes? Sixty men (and women?) throw caution to the wind and start running toward the main entrance, zigzagging their way to avoid bullets. Only half of us make it. I get to the objective first, somehow avoiding any tangos. I start to put on the charge… and I blow up.
30 seconds left.
We are on the brink of defeat. I land without taking too much bullets during my fall and start my sprint toward an unachievable goal.
16 second left.
A miracle happens and time literally stands still. Someone, in the midst of battle, was able to set up a charge. With our hopes back up and victory in grasp way, our squad leader shouts: “Shit! We need to protect the charge!” Once again, everyone runs toward the hangar, shooting anything that moves. I make it to the objective and I see a tango making his way to the explosives; he is back to me. I line up my shot, like it was the last one I would ever have to make in my life, and pull the trigger… headshot. I saved the day and nobody will ever know it.
Valor is victorious.
We made it. With 16 seconds left on the counter, we made it. A fight that won’t go down in history, but that will be remembered by all of those who took part in it and bonded through it. This is what MAG is really all about in the end.
Thinking About War Games Through MAG.
I have been wondering for some times about what games with strong military thematic can bring to the table. Are they simple trivialization of war, deadly and sad events presented as fun and inconsequential, or are they no worse than playing “Cowboys and Indians”, fun games teaching us how to cooperate and socialize through role-play? And then again, maybe there is a bit of both.
I wrote an article last month about Modern Warfare 2 and how ridiculous the main plot was. Michael Rousseau wrote in response to my post: “I think the multiplayer actually paints a pretty hilarious picture: a world where people run to their deaths without a care in the world, dual-wielding 100-year-old shotguns, diving from roofs without injury and calling tactical nukes down on the very land they’re fighting over.”
Mr. Rousseau’s comment resumes really well what can be seen as the weakest point of most war games, their very depiction of war. Of course, we cannot ask for every single of our war games to give an authentic experience of the battlefield. It would make for a very long and frustrating experience, one where you spend more time crouched and waiting for something to happen than shoot people.
Let’s take a look at the other side of the medal by taking MAG’s emphasis on cooperation, “role-playing”, and socialization as an example of the good elements that can be picked up from a multiplayer session.
“Look out for me”
Why do we play games? Not video games in particular, but social games in general (no, not the Facebook kind). I’ve given earlier in my article the case of playing “Cowboys and Indians”, and it’s because I think that there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between this kids game and a war game like MAG, in both why we play them and what we can learn from them.
The first parallel you can draw is that both “Cowboys and Indians” and FPSs are role-playing games in the literal sense of the term. You play a role in both kinds of experience. In the first, you either play a cowboy or an Indian, and in the second you can take on a multitude of roles: space marine, cowboy, alien, soldier, MIT graduate, etc…
What do we get from role-playing? Well, in the case of young children, it helps them to acquire and develop a myriad of skills and knowledge, going from exploring their imagination to building social skills. Role-playing can even help older children in classrooms to learn through simulation.
Similar elements can be brought by war games, and MAG serves as a perfect example of this. In this game, you get to develop your own role. It lets you pick up and customize your own load-out and create the character you want to be; it lets you role-play the way you want it.
MAG focuses a lot on teamwork; in war, you can’t make it alone. The game forces the users to use their skills in a way to work with the team, and not break out on their own. Each member of this micro-society has a role and has to fulfill it order for the micro-society to function. Medics stay slightly behind to heal, heavy infantries charge forward, commandos try to flank the enemies, etc…
It also puts emphasis on the development of leadership skills. You start by following orders from your superiors and help your teammates toward different objectives, and you slowly (or quickly) gain enough experience to take on those leadership responsibilities. Once you are the leader, you will strive to lead your squad, platoon, or even company and gain even more experience, but more importantly, their respect.
This also leads us toward the concept of socialization through role-play. Kids will learn to socialize with one another through social games as cowboys and Indians. Gamers will also socialize through gaming as they talk and strategize through their specific roles. Some will develop friendships as if the situation in which they are, though simulated, is real. The game environment, even if hostile in its nature, becomes a social space where people can meet up and develop skills together.
So, are war games good or bad? My reflection would make go toward the good side but with some reserve. Not all social games are going to give the player something in return, and a kid who doesn’t want to play along can ruin even a good game of “Cowboys and Indians”. Gaming is a conversation between a system of rules and a player. When you get multiple players to communicate between themselves and the game, a lot of thing can happen. If everyone plays along in the role-play, even unrealistic war games can teach us a few lessons about ourselves, and how we work with others.